When I was suffering from an eating disorder, I felt powerless to stop it. It may have given me a sense of control, but really, it controlled me. Trying to take on a force that was controlling me was a bit like David vs. Goliath. As a bulimic, it was obvious what I needed to change in order to be considered “recovered.” I needed to stop bingeing, and I needed to stop purging. I needed to stop compulsively turning to food to cope. What needed to change was obvious, but what evaded me for so long, was how to accomplish it.
I’ve now recovered, and while that story is much too long to explain here, I have isolated 3 behaviors that are easy to implement in the early stages of recovery. I say easy, because they don’t involve trying to tackle the often deeply entrenched and relied upon diseased behaviors, but are still effective. In other words, if you can’t stop yet, start here. This is a backdoor route towards recovery, through avoiding triggers.
1. Realize your attention is your currency
At any given moment, both our bodies and our minds are a product of what we’re doing with ourselves- physically and mentally. Where you chose to focus your attention is the direction in which you’re heading. You cannot help but be affected by what you take in. Advertising wouldn’t exist if this weren’t true. When I truly acquiesced to this fact, it forced me to act differently. I was compelled to be more intentional with my attention. How this relates to curbing the eating disorder is that it is very essential to intentionally curate what you pay your attention to, in order to prevent triggering yourself.
My eating disorder liked to trigger itself. It wanted to look at photos of women who made me feel envious, because when I was triggered, I turned to it. It liked to take in images, information, videos, etc., that caused me to compare myself with some ideal. Photos are an angle, photos are an instant, photos are real, but not true. Even the girls in the photo don’t really look like that. I made the conscious decision not to pay attention to things that made me feel bad about myself. I was absolutely ruthless with this rule. It meant ceasing to watch certain shows, abandoning Tumblr, curating my Pinterest, un-following feeds on Instagram, and even certain friends on Facebook, because the cost I was unwittingly paying was too high not to. I paid attention to the sensations in my body when taking in some stimulus as a guide towards or away from something. If I felt contracted, anxious, or was left feeling exhausted, I cut that source out. I did it to love myself, because I deserved to lessen my struggle. What I noticed was, if I didn’t take something in that made me feel bad about myself, I wasn’t triggered. In hindsight, this is painfully obvious, but knowing something and feeling it can be two different things. I had to do the work to actually feel the improvement. I paid attention to sources that uplifted me, that stimulated self-inquiry, or make me feel positive, unknowingly building the foundation that replaced the eating disorder once I no longer need it.
2. Stop inspecting your body in the mirror
This is a subsection of #1, but because of it’s power to trigger you, it gets it’s own number. The tendency to be hyper aware of my body was very dominant during my years of struggle. I didn’t even realize how much I was doing it. It wasn’t until my external situation changed for unrelated reasons, and I had no full-length mirrors around me for an extended period of time, that I was able to correlate how much better I felt with the absence of self-inspection. I noticed that there was something in me that felt like I “needed” to regularly examine my body in the mirror. As though my body would go to hell if I didn’t. The truth is, inspecting my body didn’t change it. Inspecting my body just made me feel miserable about it. I was able to recognize the impulse to inspect was the eating disorder trying to perpetuate itself- trying to trigger me. This understanding empowered me to continue to be strong. When I inspected my body less, I felt much less critical of myself. When I was less critical of my body, my eating disorder was less triggered. Each time I avoided triggering myself, I regained a little bit of my power.
3. Connect with other people
Obsession with body image is the game I played once ill, not the reason for being ill. This is an important distinction. Above all, bulimia was my mind’s way of protecting itself after I experienced trauma, through isolating myself. It gave me something to “do” despite the fact my life was otherwise void, that was separate and safe from my distrust of relationships. It made it so that I no longer needed them. My world was inside my head, where I could be alone. Once my eating disorder was entrenched, being alone was no longer what I wanted, but was what it wanted. I was deeply secretive and tried to prevent my problems from being discovered. Being alone supported my disordered behavior. My logic was that spending time with others might work to combat it.
I intentionally put my energy into pursuing deep and meaningful relationships, making friends with loving people, and increasing contact with my family. I distanced myself from competitive friends, or anyone I felt negative or tired after being around. I never anticipated how powerful this would be. I went into it intending to counteract what the eating disorder wanted, and came to discover how very badly I had needed it. I came to discover how much a sense of connection with others replaced the emptiness that I was turning to the eating disorder to fill. I realized that the reason I was so bonded with my eating disorder was because I wasn’t bonded with anyone else. Having friends that made my heart sing made it possible to see the eating disorder as the bad-for-you boyfriend it definitely was.
Intention is Everything
Recovery is a process of peeling back layers, one by one. It’s like washing a dirty rag over and over again, loosening a bit of dirt from your psyche each time. Don’t focus on how dirty the rag remains, focus on the empowerment that comes with each incremental improvement. In my experience, when it comes to self-improvement, it doesn’t matter where on the spectrum of healing you’re starting from, each step up feels just as good. The energy of will- present intentions and actions- is primary, and it can be trained (thank goodness). In other words, all that’s required is being willing to try.